Wednesday, August 26, 2009
FOR THE RECORD: This story omitted the names of family members Anthony and Gina Wagner, who also are part of the business. Wagner Farms has eight full-time employees and 25 working family members. The article should have said Arlene Wagner is the owner/manager of the farm store. Roxanne Wagner is the corn maze owner/manager.
Sweet corn, the essence of summer
By Denise Miller
For the Journal
Sweet corn is synonymous with summer. When the corn comes in, people line up at growers' markets and farm stands for fresh-from-the-field ears by the dozen.
If you're a market shopper in central New Mexico, chances are you may be familiar with the Wagners and their sweet corn. If you aren't, this is a good time of year to get to know them.
Gus and Arlene, their sons Bobby and Jimmy and each of their families make up Wagner Farms, which in October 2010 will celebrate 100 years of farming on their land.
Corrales was a little more pastoral back when Augustine Wagner, Gus Wagner's father, purchased the homestead and 70-acre farm in 1910. But over the years, as the area changed and the family grew, the Wagners added to their acreage with land in Socorro.
Now farming on about 300 acres, 25 family members and about 40 seasonal workers grow four varieties of sweet corn. They also grow chile, tomatoes, squash, apples, beans, okra, watermelons, cantaloupes and more.
No substitute for fresh
It's easy to understand that all fruits and vegetables are best when they are super fresh, but the higher the sugar content, the more imperative freshness becomes. That's because from the moment of picking, sugar like that in sweet corn begins to change into starch.
If you want the sweetest corn, keep three things in mind: Get it as fresh as possible, keep it cool until eating and eat it as soon as possible.
Corn at growers' markets or farm stands should be kept in the shade or on ice. Ideally it should have been picked the morning you buy it or the night before. Look for corn that isn't piled high in the bin where it will generate its own heat, hastening the conversion of sugar to starch.
"When we take corn to market, it is always picked the night before and parked in the shade since the markets are so early. But corn at our store is picked that morning," says Roxanne Wagner, Jimmy's wife, who runs the Corrales farm store.
Most of us are familiar with pulling back the husks to peek at what's inside, but also check that the husks are fresh-looking, tight and green (not yellowed or dry). When you strip back part of the husk, look for tightly packed rows of plump kernels.
The kernels at the tip should be smaller, but still plump rather than shrunken. Large kernels at the tip are a sign of overmaturity. Pop a kernel with your fingernail: Milky juice should spurt out. If the liquid is watery, the corn is immature; if the skin of the kernel is tough and its contents doughy, the corn is overripe.
Also, the stalk of a freshly picked ear will be green and moist; if it is opaque and white, or dry and brown, the corn is several days old and won't be very sweet. The silk should be moist, soft and light golden, not brown and brittle.
Corn should be kept cool until you cook it. Refrigerate it as soon as you get home if you aren't cooking it immediately.
If you have more corn on hand than you can use within a day or two, parboil it for just a minute or two to stop the conversion of sugar to starch; then you can refrigerate it for up to three days.
Finish the cooking process by dropping the corn into a pot of boiling water and boiling it for a minute. Or cut the kernels from the cob and reheat them in a small saucepan.
Now, the best part: what to do with your fresh, ever-so-sweet corn.
If you ask people how they like to eat corn, you will get almost as many answers as people you ask.
CALABACITAS: Steam the corn until almost done, then slice the kernels from the cob. Meanwhile, chop a zucchini or two, some onion, garlic and chile; add the corn, green chile to taste, other veggies and at least a half can of chicken broth; simmer gently until veggies are tender but firm. Serve with grated sharp cheddar cheese.
SALAD TOPPING: Cut the kernels off the cob and sauté them with onion and salt and pepper, and serve on a salad.
SALSA: Really fresh corn doesn't need to be cooked. Cut it off the cob. Rinse canned black beans. Dice red onion, green pepper, tomato and cilantro. Toss them together, and dress with a lemon/olive oil vinaigrette. This is delicious with steak or grilled chicken.
GRILLED: Soak the still-husked corn in slightly salted water for 30 minutes, drain the excess, then give it a slow roasting on an outdoor grill before serving with lots of real, unsalted butter on the side.
BOILED: Two basic rules apply to good ol' fashioned corn on the cob right out of the pot. Do not add salt, as it will toughen the corn; and cook the corn only long enough to tenderize it a matter of minutes. Turn off the heat and let stand for five minutes. (You can leave it in the hot water for up to 10 minutes.)
Roxanne says her favorite way to enjoy corn is boiled on the cob with butter and salt. Summer is here. What are you waiting for?